NCAA Basketball Championship 

NCAA Basketball Championship 

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Rowan Kaiser drops in on one of the year's top sporting events, the championship game of the NCAA basketball tournament.)

I'm not sure that there's anything in our society with quite as much unexamined cultural baggage as sports. The most literal understanding of the word may be where people start—individuals or teams competing in athletic games of skill—but we all come with their own idea of what sports means to us: local pride, tribal affiliation, patriarchal dominance, drinking, feats of physical dominance, being with friends, understanding the world through math, memories of family, gambling, or more. March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament, manages to bring a much different set of discussions and expectations than virtually every other kind of sports. It's a cultural event well above and beyond the drama of the games themselves.

Brackets—and gambling—are one of the big reasons why. There's some kind of geometric appeal in the perfectly-formed 64-team bracket of the NCAA tournaments, albeit one that's been partially ruined on the men's side with the ridiculous play-in games. Filling them out has become a cultural event, regardless of whether you even watch the games. And with the office or classroom pool, well, a little money on the side never hurt rooting interest. The whole concept of seeding also adds an instant rooting interest for anyone who prefers to cheer on the underdog; never mind that there's not much difference between a 5-seed and a 10-seed qualitatively, just having the number there feels like there should be. Seeding and brackets also engender a narrative of predictability or unpredictability. A quick glance at any game or set of results can tell if what happened was what supposed to happen. It's superb for lazy sportswriting or message-board discussion. Terms like Upset! Cinderella! Chalk! Bracket-buster! get tossed around to describe the supposed overall narrative, when in reality, on the court, what actually happens are a bunch of college kids scrambling to make the best of a desperate situation.

The NCAA tournament (tournaments, really, since the women's tournament has exactly the same form) is, in short, a microcosm for the discussion of sports as narrative. Every single game has an immediate narrative, and given how wide-ranging college basketball is, with over a hundred teams in the NCAA, compared to roughly 30 in a league for professional North American sports, it's most commonly applied. You don't have to watch the games to have an opinion or way to describe what happened. It's not sports; it's “sports.”

Tonight's men's championship was just about the perfect game for easily-applied stories before the tipoff. On one side was Connecticut, or UConn, one of the most successful programs of the last decade-plus, and a factory for NBA-quality players, year after year. On the other, Butler, a small school in Indiana, heartland of basketball, which survived being in “mid-major” conference and surprisingly reaching the championship game. UConn was a #3 seed, Butler a #8. It's a David versus Goliath scenario, hard work and fundamentals versus talent and big-program money. If that's too reductive for you, how about this one: Butler, despite its underdog status both years, is actually back in the championship game after almost upsetting Duke last year, while UConn was considered a disappointment until it went on an insane hot streak over the last month, seemingly unable to lose with the team's back constantly against the wall. This was a lazy writer's dream for all the introductions, promos, previews, and lulls in the game.

Happily, while there was some small amount of that, CBS and its announcing team did a surprisingly good job of making these storylines known, yes, but not relying on them to drive discussion of the game itself. Once the game started, a new story became clear: These teams were both stinking up the joint. So instead of glazing over it, the two analysts described what was happening and why, and when UConn was first to actually start making things happen, they noted the breakthrough came when UConn stopped relying on the pick'n'roll. When Butler tried to adjust with a zone defense, they picked up on its failure quickly. Full credit goes to Steve Kerr and Clark Kellogg for picking this up, and even more credit to CBS for using them, and not the execrable Billy Packer, put out to pasture a few years back.

Which is not to say that CBS didn't fall prey to overhyping things. A tasteful intro, with the players stammering, trying to describe just what a national championship would mean, demonstrated both the importance of the event and the youth of the players involved. During the game, however, the network relied too much on the crappy overblown-music-over-video-highlights trick to make the game seem both more important and more exciting. Perhaps the most egregious example of the musical hype comes from CBS pimping their “One Shining Moment” montage, which, after the game was over, was talked about in hushed tones, as if the whole point of the competition was for the players to get into their overly sentimental montage. I stuck around to watch “One Shining Moment” for perhaps the first time in my life, and I have no idea why anyone other than a UConn fan would watch through to the end for it. Tradition, I guess, but it was never a tradition for me at the height of my college basketball interest in the 1990s. CBS seems to have made it one simply through repetition.

Almost as interesting as what was said during the telecast was what was left unsaid. Despite the mass chaos of the tournament, there were surprisingly few references to bracket-busting, other than this being a “historic” Final Four. Since bracket gambling is technically illegal, I guess that's not as surprising as I excepted. Also, there was very little discussion of the NBA-worthiness of the best players, which is one of the many non-game reasons that people pay attention to the tournament. UConn's Kemba Walker is taking his place as one of the great college basketball players of all time, but nobody, not even Charles Barkley, started a conversation about where he'd go in the draft or whether he'd be a quality player or a bust at the professional level.

Controversy of any kind was ignored. Jim Calhoun, coach of the Connecticut Huskies, is under an NCAA investigation that many speculate will push him into retirement. You wouldn't know this if you watched. Nor would you know that Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA, which governs college athletics, has actually made noises about paying the student-athletes which make his organization so much money. That's understandable, given that CBS probably wants to keep the NCAA happy. Part of the reason for the popularity of March Madness is the sheer number of stories that can be told. But they all spring from the actual action on the court, and CBS did well this year to keep the action on the sport, not the “sport.”

Stray Observations:

  • Interesting dichotomy between the NBA-leaning studio guys and the college-leaning booth guys, specifically Clark Kellogg. The first just declared this a terrible game, where Kellogg noted that it was actually a fairly entertaining game, with the exception of actually putting the ball in the basket.
  • “Clunk” was the official sound of the NCAA Championship Game.
  • Did LeAnn Rimes BeDazzle that mic herself?
  • Jim Nantz started the game with some breathless announcing. By the time he realized that it had been 4-3 for several minutes, he calmed down.
  • Nantz is a solid announcer, but he slid towards the “sports” side of things when he started talking about how the Butler players described their return to the Final Four by saying “the script, the movie isn't over yet.” He was quickly snapped back to the game by his analysts.
  • Brad Stevens sounds like he could be a great analyst, based on his halftime interview.
  • Jim Calhoun's pregame speech was caught by the cameras, and it was one of the least inspiring things I've ever seen. Stage fright? At the end of the game, he wisecracked that it was good that the cameras didn't catch his apparently far more effective halftime speech.
  • Grown men talkin' bout other grown men's “length” for the benefit of an audience comprised in large part of grown men. Is it basketball or is it horse trading?
  • It's no “This is for all the Tostitos” but “Connecticut wins Best In Show” was pretty ridiculous.
  • The game itself really wasn't that terrible to watch, but it worked a lot better if you treated it more like the NHL than the NBA. Then again, I'm a soccer fan, so I'm used defending low-scoring sports as still being interesting, really, I mean it, really!

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